Even the news that the state will hold off advertising the rerouting of Route 18 until at least 2010, effectively postponing a plan to make New Bedford’s downtown area more pedestrian friendly, can’t divert city officials’ beliefs that the area is on a true upswing.
While many major cities across the Commonwealth are struggling to find ways to redevelop their aging and mostly vacant downtown merchant buildings, New Bedford has been quietly filling holes over the last five years.
Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Office said a total of 19 storefronts have been filled in downtown in the last 12 months, and that’s only the beginning.
Morrissey said the city’s growth trend favors a niche retail downtown scenario that has opened up a variety of diverse shops from small restaurants to unique clothing stores. He said while the city has assisted some of the businesses with starter costs to get them going, others are now popping up that are doing it on their own.
“Whether it’s high tech businesses or floral shops, if we don’t have a strong downtown core, its tough to articulate the strength of a growing New Bedford,” said Morrissey. “There are a number of businesses and tenants in the downtown area that work together in a risk strategy to allow both businesses to share in the risks of the business openings, where they bring the square footage cost down for appropriate parties to help aid in their growth as a small business.”
Citing a grocery store as a prized feature of a revitalized downtown region, Morrissey said the city is lobbying hard to bring one back to the downtown area likely on the Acushnet Avenue portion of downtown, east of Custom House Square.
“A grocery store is an important component that does need to exist in the downtown,” said Morrissey.
In addition to the rerouting of Route 18 which is likely to go out to bid in August of 2010, a delay of about a year from earlier predictions, the new waterfront 100-room Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites owned by Lafrance Hospitality is set to break ground this spring with a completion in 2010. Other projects in line for completion include a Riverwalk across the Acushnet River and the redevelopment of the former Cliftex and Fairhaven Mills sites, just a few blocks from the downtown area.
“This isn’t just about putting something in the downtown area, it’s about job creation, but companies will not make the sort of investment it takes unless there is a strong downtown core,” said Morrissey.
Diane Nichols, executive director of Downtown New Bedford Inc. has helped to implement a number of merchant campaigns in order to get people shopping in downtown stores, including a springtime window decorating contest, $5 off coupons, and events like the recent half marathon where many shops stayed open all weekend long in order to attract the thousands of runners and spectators for the popular annual event.
“The problem with downtown in the past is many of the merchants didn’t want to open during the half marathon because they felt they wouldn’t get the business,” said Nichols. “But this is a place where there will be 1,000 people taking off from and there was nowhere visitors could go.”
For the 2009 race on March 15, Downtown New Bedford Inc. convinced businesses to stay open and businesses flourished because of it.
Upcoming events also plan to boost traffic to the area including the Taste of SouthCoast on May 17 as well as Summerfest, Chowderfest and eventually the Holiday Stroll. In a shift from past years, the stroll will now only include merchants in the actual downtown area and no outside businesses, Nichols said, noting the cooperation between her group and the businesses has never been better.
“We have a downtown forum meeting every three months that allows us and the businesses to see the bigger picture, not just from a territorial perspective like looking at only shops but the entire downtown region,” said Nichols, who collected fees to promote the merchants in a program guide and map of the area and its businesses. “These festivals will bring a lot of people to the downtown area and we hope people will take the time to explore what it has to offer them.”
Yet another quietly growing city strength is New Bedford’s status as a filming attraction.
New Bedford Tourism Director Anne Marie Lopes said downtown New Bedford has become the hub for films that include major motion pictures, documentaries and even music videos.
“In the past year and a half, there’s been a lot of interest from the film industry,” said Lopes, noting examples including PBS American Experience series, the History Channel, Discovery Channel and a heavy metal music group.
“Unfortunately there are some we can’t talk about just yet and others that come into the city, look around and then leave,” she said.
A feature film called “Whaling City” will begin production this summer/fall about the history of the fishing industry and a student film called “Homeland”, filmed at the downtown sandwich shop On a Roll premiered at the Zeiterion Theater in April.
“Film companies come to New Bedford and quickly realize that they can film almost every movie here with the tree-lined streets, cobblestone roads, historic streetlights, a working waterfront,” said Lopes. “New Bedford has it all and with being close to Boston and Providence, we have a strong workforce here that can do the makeup, costumes, set electrical work and other trades.”
Lopes also hopes to boost business by continuing to attract cruise ships to the city. Las summer 26 ships visited the Whaling City.
April 24, 2009
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